In the October 26, 2010 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader asks:

One thing that has kept me from seeking other employment is that I don’t want to lose the four weeks of vacation time I’ve built up. Are vacation benefits negotiable?

Everything is negotiable, but not every negotiation is winnable… The position many companies take has never made sense to me. They claim they wouldn’t be able to keep a lid on vacation policy if they were to negotiate special deals with new hires. “We must be consistent and fair.”

But I look at this another way. Vacation time is not a benefit, but a form of compensation… Wait until the offer has been made, then diplomatically and matter-of-factly explain that just as you are worth the salary level you have attained, you’re worth the vacation time, too.

(The rest of my suggestions are in the newsletter. Subscribe now — it’s FREE! Don’t miss getting the whole story next week!)

Employers will ask for your salary history, and base a job offer on it. So when it comes to vacation time, why do they want you to start back at square one? More vacation is good for the gander! Just 2 weeks off? Are you nuts???

Did you leave your vacation time behind, or did you negotiate it? What’s your story?


  1. Hi Nick,

    I am stuck in a dilemma and I seriously need your advice. Well about a month ago I was referred by my ex boss to work for one of their affiliated companies. I was not too thrilled about working at this company because I felt it to be too far from home, and salary was ok. I was not offered a benefits package, because the company is a start up and I will have to look for a good insurance provider and present it to my employer being part of my new job description. I have been working at my new job for 4 weeks now, and initially I did not like it, and was somewhat unhappy, but thought it deserved a chance, and now that some time has past I have begun to enjoy my position a lot. Here’s the problem; two days before I started working I interviewed at another company that I would have loved to work at. This company recently contacted me and offered me a job, with an incredible salary and benefits package. Now I don’t know what to do because I feel like I gave in too quick when accepting the offer for the 1st job and didn’t really negotiate my salary too well, because I will admit it, I really wanted a permanent position especially with this economy. I really like and enjoy where I am now and would love to stay, but this is really bothering me because I feel like I am getting short changed. Another thing you should know is since I am also handling a new HR system, I have access to resumes, and ran into all the other individuals that interviewed for my position and saw all their salary requirements which were all over $100k meanwhile I was only offered $70k. Now that I am working for my current employer I am starting to notice that my current position requires a lot of work and commitment which I am happy to take on. But this salary thing is really starting to bother me. I really don’t want to accept the other offer, and thought of sitting down with my current boss and explaining to him that I would like to re-evaluate the offer he gave me and ask for a 20% increase? Also note that my boss now is super nice, but I don’t know what he’ll think after I tell him this. Also note that I wasn’t too crazy about my current salary when I accepted the offer, so it has nothing to do with the current offer I recently got. Is this the right thing to do, please help.

  2. Take the offer from the other company. Your current company put you in that position because you were cheaper than hiring outside and made you shop for your own health insurance. If they could get someone cheaper they would not hesitate to fire you. You don’t owe them any more loyalty than they would give you. If you try to negotiate a new salary they may give it to you only to fire you a month later when the opportunity with the other company is gone. Take it while it is there.

  3. Nick,
    The last time I changed jobs was in late 2001. At that time I had just made the five weeks vacation at my old company. The policy at the new company was 2 weeks for the first five years. Ouch!
    HR didn’t want to budge on the offical policy. I was on the fence when our manager said I could have an extra week “off the books” if I took it in days. That arrangement worked out well for the first five years.
    In another year, I will be back to four weeks. Yahoo! Time flies when you’re having a good time.

  4. Coming from an European country where 5 weeks of vacation per year is the norm, the usual two weeks in the U.S. always sounded insanely short to me. I need much more time to properly relax and gather energy to do a good job again after the vacation.

    Being a bit longer away from the work environment may also bring up fresh ideas about what is really important for the business.

    One strategy which I and several of my friends have found very effective has been negotiating unpaid leaves. A company might be unwilling to offer extra days of paid vacation, but understand your need for a bit longer block of free time.

    This works particularly well in one-off cases, for example to have some vacation during the first year in a new job (when you might otherwise have none), or to pursue a dream which requires a longer leave just once – say a road trip across the continent.

    However, an arrangement to have unpaid leave can also be made continuous (e.g. one month every summer), especially if you’re flexible to schedule the leave during the time which is the least critical for the business.

    If your main objective is securing a long enough period of free time rather than maximizing money, you might well consider this approach. Meanwhile, you can still keep tough on the salary negotiations.

  5. @JohnZ: That can work out really well. It worked well for my wife… until her boss accepted a new position six months later. Since it wasn’t “on the books” her new boss had no knowledge of it, nor reason to enforce it. If it is really important to you, it’s a risk not to get it in writing.

  6. As the CEO/owner of a small tech company, I formulate most HR policies.

    We start all junior people with three weeks vacation and senior staff with four, in addition to 10 paid holidays. We add one day for each year of service for senior staff, and two days for junior staff until you reach the maximum of five weeks. We don’t pay as much as the larger companies but the benefits and atmosphere let us attract quality people. And when profits rise to a suitable level, bonus payments will resume and we will be more competitive on salaries (as we were in the past).

    Creative people need time-off. In this day and age, you need great creativity to keep moving forward.

  7. Thanks Nick, you did bring out a lot of good points. You should also know that my current employer offered me a 1 week vacation, I know I was crazy to accept this. Actually this is what he offers all new employees. I have worked in other companies where I received 2 weeks vacation initially and once completed 3 years I earned 3 weeks vacation. The new company offered me 3 weeks vacation to start, full medical & dental coverage, 401k, stock option, retirement plan, and maybe more. Basically everything I always wanted. Considering that I am only 31 years old I have worked really hard to get to where I am, and my position now is of Controller, which makes it even harder to decide because new company is offering me a position of Associate, which is a step back. New company does offer opportunity for growth though so I have something to look forward to. I am very dedicated to my work, so where ever I decide to go I will give it my all. If anyone has anything to add, please do. Thanks!

  8. When a company declines to match your current vacation, but offers to give you “time off the books,” consider the implications.

    Rich R makes the point. If it’s not in writing, you will likely lose it. A boss moves on, and HR cancels the deal. How does it feel getting terms that only you and the boss know about? Does the boss have to do other “off the books” things like this to keep the department functioning?

    HR plays another game – which candidates are of course free to play, too. Rather than increase a job offer to meet your request, HR will offer a starting bonus or an incentive after you’ve been there a year. While you may be happy with that, remember that it’s just a one-time payment. Any compensation that does not increase your base salary is not factored into your next raise; nor does it factor into other benefits like life insurance or pension.

    While a one-time payment may be better than nothing, remember that it’s a far better deal for the company than for you. My advice: Point this out, and consider negotiating the one-time payment upwards, since you’ll never see it affect any other aspect of your compensation or benefits. You will see it only once.

    Back to the vacation front: Even if they’re giving you “unpaid time off,” get it in writing.

  9. All,

    I was comfortable with the verbal offer to take the extra week of vacation “off the books” since I sensed the only way that manager was leaving his job would be in a box. The extra week was not a deal breaker, but a nice to have. Had there been a change of regime, I would have taken the matter up with the new manager.
    Getting anything in writing especially from HR is all but impossible these days. In my last position, one of the young up and coming project engineers had an offer he was considering. The HR rep assured him a rosy future if he stayed, but would not put any kind of promotion schedule in writing. To his credit he left. The legal department had a stranglehold on HR there because they lost a few cases in court.

  10. Christy, Chris gave you solid advice. I would take it!

    Arto, I agree with negotiating unpaid leave if negotiating paid leave is a deal-breaker. I just care about having enough time to go to the Himalayas or other places worth going– and yes, fully unwinding— so that I may be more effective and creative when I come back.

    Other thoughts…

    I agree that Americans are too over-worked to go on at this pace. Most burn out or their health stops them cold. More vacation is given in Europe because it flat out makes sense— for everyone! Healthier, more productive, happy workers, stay where they are and work harder when they are there. Over-worked workers with little vacation, multi-task personal tasks into the job (when else could they do them?), show up tired more often than not, and are damn near exploding half the time. They leave as soon as something better comes along and who can blame them? People are not machines and they are not interchangeable. American businesses need to learn to flex to what is important to their individual employees, and no that wouldn’t result in mayhem, because we all have different needs and priorities!

  11. I think companies should stop policing vacation policies. Everyone should get as much vacation as they want. There would be less accounting costs. Less liability on the books. Also whoever fired anyone for taking too much vacation? They fire people because they do not do the job.

  12. As Nick said everything’s negotiable and at times, so is vacation. Follow the rule of thumb, never hurts to ask. and the time to ask is before you come aboard and get locked into the admin terms and conditions. A job change, including internal ones always has risk both both sides as do negotiations. One thing you can guarantee, if you don’t ask, you definitely won’t have your needs addressed.
    Think of it as a choice of low to high risk/higher risk negotiations against which you are constantly assessing how much you think you like the job and organization/management for whom you’ll be working.
    When you negotiate timing is important. You’ll want to do this when you are in the stage where you are comfortably talking with the hiring manager. HR should keep the Hiring Manager in the loop, but you can’t count on it. The Hiring Manager is the person most likely to do something about it, if you/HM have bonded.
    1. Ask for what you want, get it in writing. If done, lowest risk and end of negotiation
    2. Ask get it verbally from the hiring manager. Risk but in my experience from both ends as giver and receiver, low. The risk being as Nick noted it’s tied to that person.
    Of all the things that come up, vacation seems to be in concrete. And the usual way around it is the “off the books” by the manager and most likely he/she won’t worry HR’s pretty head about such details. If that person leaves, there’s a good probability the replacement will likely be someone in the organization. And your deal with the HM won’t likely be a dark secret inside the team, and when the baton is passed, your deal is taped to it.
    If you’ve made a good choice, as someone noted time takes care of it.
    It does work best if you take the off the books time in days, in long weekends.
    The same process goes on with something similar, comp time, time off for unpaid overtime. In my world professionals didn’t get paid for overtime, so we managers balanced it out when it got onerous with comp time. So in my world, someone who cut a deal for lost vacation wouldn’t be too noticed, but likely known.

  13. One thing to keep in mind is to not just negotiate the incoming amount of vacation, but the schedule with which you’ll earn more. If you’ve been out in the work force for 15 years, and your new employer grants, say, 4 weeks at 20 years and you’ve negotiated 3, don’t wait another 20 years for another week.

    I did the first at my current job, but not the second. I think my boss is reasonable enough that I could manage getting more vacation instead of waiting until XX years like everyone else to jump to the next level.

    And if a company states that they have to stick to the vacation policy because they want to be fair and consistent, demand to see the pay scales for the position. After all, they’ve published the vacation policy so everyone knows it. Why not publish the pay scales so you can do the “trust but verify” bit with pay? What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. And if pay is negotiable, why not vacation?


  14. @Bob: You’re exactly right. The first job I ever worked had an off-the-books policy of “take as much time off as you need”. As long as you got your work done and made sure you were covered when out of the office, it was fine! It was a great place to work… until it got bought out by a much larger company that told EVERYONE they would only get two weeks vacation, and would also need to fill out a weekly timesheet confirming that you worked 8 hours every day (people had regularly put in 9-10 hour days before the timesheet was instated – an easy way to balance days off or leaving early).

  15. The idea of flexible vacation time is long overdue. While some would abuse it, I think that can be managed. Today people work virtually all the time, via pc at home and smartphones on the road. Employers get FAR more time out of their employees than they ever used to. The idea of continuing to limit “time off” to a couple or three weeks, and closely monitoring this, is foolish. As long as people get their work done, who cares how much time they take off? (The problem, of course, is that few managers know how to track productivity effectively. In larger organizations, managers have no idea what their employees are producing.)

  16. @Nick and @Anita,
    Thanks for the show of support. But I’ve been in the biz a long time (in large companies and small) and most managers do know what their employees are producing. They don’t let the wool be pulled too often.

    The problem with my solution is, if there still exists a negotiation with the boss as to how much time you take. Then vacation policy devolves from one size fits all, to the boss has all the power. And most bosses, in my opinion, would probably abuse that power. Since most companies don’t have a vacation policy as I propose it, it is not possible now to prove this assertion.

  17. Bob,

    Netflix has a vacation policy just as you propose for its office workers. While I have no personal experience with it, I understand that it is considered very successful.

  18. Here’s a presentation on Netflix’s policies (which I learned about via Contented Cows).
    Contented Cows has an ongoing discussion theme of how to encourage discretionary effort – and vacation policies are a part of that encouragement process.